We have arrived at the final three stories on my Top 10 list from 2016-17, and No 3 is very special. The story, posted on May 22, is a profile of one of the most amazing people I know. Shan Donovan was born in China without a left arm, and today he is a three-sport athlete and multi-dimensional high school student in a small Minnesota town. The word “inspirational” doesn’t even begin to describe Shan...One Arm? That’s No Problem For Onamia’s Amazing Shan Donovan
ONAMIA – Shan Donovan was standing near the right-field foul line, playing catch with a teammate before the Onamia High School varsity baseball team hosted Pine City. After a couple of tosses, Shan (his name is pronounced “Shawn”) shouted, “Get a little closer. My arm’s not warmed up yet.”
As the boys got loose, Shan did what he does every day on the ballfield. He caught the ball in the glove on his right hand, flipped the glove off, grabbed the ball in mid-air with his bare hand and tossed it before leaning down to pick up the glove and re-start the process.
The fact that Shan does not have a left arm is no impediment for the Panthers’ sophomore starting catcher. He also plays football and basketball, sings in the school choir and acts in school plays. He is proficient with several musical instruments, including the tuba, trumpet and piano. And he does it all with one arm.
“If you tell him he can’t do it, he’s going to find a way to do it,” said Jason Runyan, Onamia’s head coach for baseball and boys basketball. “He lives the high school life. He’s involved in everything.”
Shan doesn’t know anything different. Born in China without a left arm, he was five years old when he was adopted by Cathy Donovan, a physican in Onamia.
Shortly after arriving in this small town a few miles south of Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota, Shan began getting involved in sports. First came karate and then taekwondo, followed by almost every other activity he could get his hand on.
“He just wants to be involved in everything and that’s how he got into sports,” said Cathy. When asked if Shan is so heavily involved in sports and other activites that he overextends himself, she laughed and said, “No. I get overextended, he doesn’t.”
Playing baseball presents specific challenges to Shan. He uses his teeth to tighten the Velcro strap on his batting glove. But like putting on shin guards and a chest protector, it’s second nature. Crouching behind home plate, he shakes off his mitt, flashes signals to the pitcher, puts the glove back on, catches the pitch and with one shake of his hand the glove flies off, he grabs the ball and throws it back to the mound. When a baserunner attempts to steal, Shan is lightning quick in getting the ball into his throwing hand and firing.
He is a switch-hitter who bats from the right side of the plate when the bases are empty; with runners on he moves to the left side and is likely to put down a bunt, using his speed to dash to first base.
“He has more power from the right side and he’s a lethal bunter from the left side,” Runyan said. “We ask a lot of him, in bunting situations especially. He’s very fast. He just works hard, that’s all there is to it.”
Runyan, who is in his first year at Onamia, admits he thought Shan was kidding when, shortly after Jason arrived in town, Shan told him, “I play catcher.”
“I thought it was a joke, honestly. I did. It wasn’t a joke, obviously. I put him back there at catcher and right away he was good, blocking every ball. What amazed me the most I guess was when the first kid stole, I didn’t know how it was going to go down. I’d seen a little in practice, but it was an instant flip of the glove and he throws.”
To perfect his catching/throwing motion, Shan watched online videos of people who had lost limbs but played baseball or softball anyway, many of them veterans.
“It’s one of those sports that’s pretty complicated because most everybody sees it as a two-arm sport,” he said. “You definitely have to use two arms; catch with one and throw with the other.”
Shan has been fitted with a prosthetic arm. He doesn’t use it, calling it “annoying.” His desire to try new things is a testament to his positive attitude.
“I don’t find really anything challenging, unless there’s absolutely ones where you definitely need two arms to do,” he said. “Most (amusement park) rides, they tell me I can’t ride them because you need to hold on with two hands. But that’s not really a problem. The one I really have an issue with is making friendship bracelets. I’m not a big fan of it and I don’t do it much.”
When his school schedule included a pottery class, he wasn’t thrilled about attempting to create pottery with one hand. In the end, though, he enjoyed the class and discovered he was a talented potter.
Playing mostly junior varsity basketball last winter, Shan didn’t do a lot of scoring but Runyan called him one of the leaders on the JV and the best defensive player. Shan’s basketball practice were sometimes limited because he had to rush off to other activities.
Runyan said, “There were three of four practices where he would come up and say, ‘Hey coach, I’ve got to go practice for the musical’ or ‘I’ve got to go practice with the jazz band.’ I thought, ‘You’re doing it all. You’re livin’ it, man.’ ”
While Shan realizes he is an inspiring figure, he doesn’t outwardly try to portray himself that way. He’s just a high school kid doing what busy high school kids do.
“I go to a camp where a lot of people look up to me,” he said. “I inspire people without realizing that I’m inspiring them. I’m not really trying to do that.”
His mom recalled when Shan helped a group of elementary students work on basketball skills. The kids, most of them righthanded, were less than excited about trying to shoot with their left hand.
“One or two of them were complaining, so Shan gave them a pep talk,” Cathy said.
Shan’s grandparents, George and Shirley Donovan, watched the Onamia-Pine City game in lawn chairs along with their daughter Cathy and the family dog, Flash. (Everybody, including Flash, nibbled on peanuts.)
Shirley talked about seeing a magazine photo of an amputee climbing Mount Everest and asking Shan, “Did you see this?”
To which Shan’s mom quickly interjected, “Don’t give him any ideas.”*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn